Sunday, 1 June 2014

Review || Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg ★★★☆☆
Rafe is a normal teenager from Boulder, Colorado. He plays soccer. He's won skiing prizes. He likes to write.

And, oh yeah, he's gay. He's been out since 8th grade, and he isn't teased, and he goes to other high schools and talks about tolerance and stuff. And while that's important, all Rafe really wants is to just be a regular guy. Not that GAY guy. To have it be a part of who he is, but not the headline, every single time.

So when he transfers to an all-boys' boarding school in New England, he decides to keep his sexuality a secret -- not so much going back in the closet as starting over with a clean slate. But then he sees a classmate breaking down. He meets a teacher who challenges him to write his story. And most of all, he falls in love with Ben... who doesn't even know that love is possible.

This witty, smart, coming-out-again story will appeal to gay and straight kids alike as they watch Rafe navigate being different, fitting in, and what it means to be himself.

I think this is probably actually a 2.5 star rating. Because I did enjoy this book at times, but it was mostly just okay.

The underlying message here is one about labels and lenses--how we see the world and how that view can be and often is skewed by any number of different factors. How society dictates and shapes these views. How people chose to conform or not. And how difficult it can be, regardless of that choice.

There's the difference between tolerance, acceptance and celebration. How our relationships with others are built and maintained. And the idea that the camera and spotlight aren't always on you, combined with the need to just be yourself, free of labels and judgement (from yourself and others).

It's a great set up. But a rather lukewarm execution. I don't know. It just never really grabbed me and shook me like I thought it ought to. Rafe was, at best, an average narrator. And though his struggle and journey are sympathetic, he too often has to be called out on his behaviour. The soap opera plot that results is one that I do enjoy on occasion (though mostly in fanfiction), but the drama falls flat and is mostly disappointing.

Despite some strong secondary characters, what I think this book lacks mostly is depth. We see a glimmer of this through Rafe's eyes, but I can't help but wonder if the story might've been stronger through someone else's narrative. Ben comes to mind, of course, but I also sort of mourn the missed potential of getting to see Bryce fully realized. He's too conveniently brushed aside for the sake of the plot, I felt. Still, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't rooting for Rafe and Ben's relationship the whole time.

There are some shining moments of brilliance locked away in here, though, like the idea that there's no such thing as being "openly straight". One minor character flippantly remarks, "What do you call it when a straight person comes out? A conversation." It's a poignant reminder that heterosexuality is the unspoken default--and that there are consequences for those who don't fit that mould as a result.

That said, 3 stars is a generous rating. It just lacked the emotional punch and follow through, and I was never 100% invested in Rafe. But still, worth checking out, I think.